Vol. 30 No. 7 (August 2020) pp. 109 - 113

AN ANTI-FEDERALIST CONSTITUTION: THE DEVELOPMENT OF DISSENT IN THE RATIFICATION DEBATES, by Michael J. Faber. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2019. 489pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-7006-2777-6.

Reviewed by Beau Breslin, Department of Political Science, Skidmore College. Email:

The United States Constitution is taking a beating these days. Harvard scholar Danielle Allen writes, “We are in our Articles of Confederation Moment,” by which she means that our constitutionally designed system of government no longer adequately serves our needs. We might disagree with the interesting constitutional modifications she proposes, but her larger point is that the Constitution may have simply run its course. Similarly, Matt Ford just offered his recipe for serious constitutional reform in a provocative NEW REPUBLIC piece entitled, “Rebuilding the Constitution: American Democracy is Broken, Here’s How to Fix It.” He too insists that America’s fundamental law needs significant repair. Not to be outdone, a group of legal scholars is currently undertaking an experiment in virtual constitution-making, attempting to map out an American Constitution for the twenty-first century.

Allen, Ford, and so many others belong to a long and illustrious line of constitutional skeptics dating back to the American Founding when Anti-Federalists set the standard for constitutional criticism. The Anti-Federalists opposed ratification of the newly drafted U.S. Constitution because they believed that the document would not adequately serve America’s needs. And they did so with a wide variety of arguments. Some wrote compellingly about the disaster that awaits with such a dramatic shift in power from the states to the federal government. Others lamented the lack of a list of rights embedded in the constitutional text. Still others argued that the environment and the proposed constitutional design are not conducive to realizing a prosperous nation. Ultimately, the Anti-Federalists did not prevail in their opposition to a Constitution that is now 233 years old, but they nonetheless left an impressive and enduring legacy.

Michael J. Faber takes a fresh look at the Anti-Federalists in his terrific new book, AN ANTI-FEDERALIST CONSTITUTION: THE DEVELOPMENT OF DISSENT IN THE RATIFICATION DEBATES. In so doing, Faber reminds us that constitutional [*110] reproach—then and now—is a crucial character in America’s ongoing political story. Although countless volumes have been written about the Anti-Federalists in the last two centuries, Faber offers at least two novel contributions. First, he organizes the many Anti-Federalist voices into three broad camps: the “Democratic” Anti-Federalists, the “Power” Anti-Federalists, and the “Rights” Anti-Federalists. Second, and most excitingly, he imagines an actual Anti-Federalist Constitution. The Anti-Federalists could not generate enough support for their own Constitutional Convention and thus the loosely defined collective never produced an alternative constitutional draft, but Faber’s imagined Constitution provides most interesting results.

Faber begins the book by explaining how his work will be different. “Certainly this story has been told before…,” he writes, “but the examination has generally focused on people or events. Here I endeavor to tell a story about ideas…” (p. ix). The three strands of Anti-Federalist argument—democratic, power, and rights—represent those dominant ideas. Faber explains that Democratic Anti-Federalists (like Centinel) were concerned primarily with issues of representation while the Power Anti-Federalists (like Brutus) were principally concerned with the concentration of authority in the hands of the national government. Finally, the Rights Anti-Federalists were focused mainly on the absence of rights protections in the constitutional document. Faber reminds us that most Anti-Federalists navigated easily among all three strands and very few pushed exclusively for just one. But he writes convincingly that the three strands are an effective lens through which to view the entire Anti-Federalist movement.

The core of the book (Chapters 3-17) is organized along chronological and geographical dimensions. “To find the Anti-Federalist position,” Faber insists, “one needs to sort through the arguments made, with an eye toward the sequence of events and the counterarguments raised by the Federalists” (p. 350; emphasis added). Faber thus weaves the plot of the ratification debates from the early discussions in Pennsylvania to the last holdouts in North Carolina and Rhode Island. He marches his way through the debates, describing the actors and the arguments, and, eventually, the results.

There are certainly many highlights in this gripping story of ratification. For example, Faber touches upon the frequently overlooked moment when Congress in late 1787 faced the choice of amending, burying, or passing along the draft Constitution to the state ratifiers. Congress chose the latter, of course, but it was touch and go for a little while. Faber also describes in great detail the story [*111] of Pennsylvania’s ratification debate. What is different is that Faber continues the story beyond the official ratification on December 12, 1787, writing about the continued attempt by Anti-Federalist voices—Centinel among them—to keep the opposition flame alive.

In Chapter 5, Faber examines the relative ease with which Federalists overwhelmed Anti-Federalists in Delaware, Georgia, and Connecticut, and how all eyes were set on the battleground state of New York. He also tells interesting stories of how the Anti-Federalists attempted to recruit big names like Sam Adams and John Hancock to their cause. Chapter 6 then begins “the heart of the National debate.” Massachusetts was up first in late 1787 and early 1788. We learn that most Anti-Federalists in the Bay State, including Agrippa, were Power Anti-Federalists, whereas Southerners and Westerners were more likely to hold Rights Anti-Federalist sensibilities. Subsequent chapters then explore the ratification efforts in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, places where the Anti-Federalists had considerable support. Faber describes Rhode Island’s statewide referendum on ratification that favored opponents of the Constitution. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.

The summer of 1788 was a particularly active period for Anti-Federalists. In places like Virginia and New York, proponents and opponents clashed over strongly-held positions. Here, Faber is at his best. He expertly recounts stories not only of the convention debates but also of the all-important election of delegates. Those battles were often just as fierce as the ratification discussions themselves.

Readers will appreciate Faber’s attention to detail in these middle chapters. He effectively describes Washington’s naivety about the views of Anti-Federalists and Madison’s reluctance to take part in the ratification debates altogether. He talks of the impact of more obscure Anti-Federalists like “A Ploughman” and “Senex.” He explains the importance of the location of each state’s Ratifying Convention (had the Convention been held in the backcountry of South Carolina, and not in Charleston as it was, the Federalists likely would have been defeated there). He portrays Patrick Henry as a critical figure in the Virginia deliberation and, consequently, across the country. He explores the critical moves to the moderate center of (thought-to-be) Anti-Federalists Melancton Smith in New York and Edmund Randolph in Virginia, and how they shifted the momentum in favor of ratification. He even talks briefly about the violence that erupted among Federalists and Anti-Federalists in New York. [*112]

One of the virtues of the book is that Faber demonstrates that Anti-Federalists were not in agreement about solutions or responses to the proposed text. Some supported conventions to amend the draft; some supported outright rejection; some even supported violence as a way to demonstrate opposition. The essential question for each state, Faber indicates, was how to ratify: conditionally or absolutely? Congress provided no clear guidance on how to address this question. Some Anti-Federalists thought that a “conditional” ratification, with a corresponding guarantee of amendments/modifications, was the only way to proceed. Others were not as sure, preferring instead “absolute” ratification and then hoping amendments would follow. Though a Federalist, Madison had a strong opinion on this exact question: he insisted that it had to be “absolute” ratification. Endorse the text as is, he said, and then use the clear procedures laid out in Article V to introduce amendments.

The greatest virtue of the book comes at the very end. Indeed, the final chapter delivers on the core promise of the monograph. It is here that Faber imagines what an Anti-Federalist Constitution would look like if the entire cohort of constitutional opponents met in Convention and constructed their own fundamental law, and it is very well done. Faber makes several assumptions about where to begin and where to look. For example, his imaginary Anti-Federalist Constitution is a reaction to the Federalist text and not an altogether new creature. He thus adds and subtracts clauses from America’s existing Constitution in an effort to show how an Anti-Federalist Constitution would differ. He looks to the main Anti-Federalist writings for guidance. That, too, is effective. In the end, we might quibble with a number of the decisions and assumptions he has made, but each is a plausible consequence of the general Anti-Federalist position we’ve come to know so well.

AN ANTI-FEDERALIST CONSTITUTION is a triumph. That’s not to say it’s perfect, however. The penultimate chapters of the book—the ones describing the push for amendments and final ratification in North Carolina and Rhode Island—are not as strong as those preceding. They seem thinner, more rushed. I won’t speculate on why they received short shrift, but it is noticeable and puzzling; disappointing, even. In addition, there is a certain rhythm to the chapters that gets a bit tiresome: Anti-Federalists begin with the upper hand, they make a series of mistakes or poor choices on representatives, and the Federalists prevail over time. Faber tells that same story seemingly state after every state. A modification in the stylistic rhythm of each chapter does not have to take away from the reality on the ground that Anti-Federalists did have the upper hand [*113] as the Constitution emerged from Philadelphia, only to then lose that majority in the months and years ahead. It would just help the reader stay focused.

Faber’s self-professed aim is to “rehabilitate” the Anti-Federalists. He succeeds in part because his research is so comprehensive. Few single works on the Anti-Federalists are as exhaustive. But Faber also succeeds in rehabilitating the Anti-Federalists because these constitutional critics don’t need rehabilitation. Sure, early historians were quick to dismiss Anti-Federalists as marginal characters and unsophisticated thinkers. More recent historians, however, are far more respectful, even going so far as to include them among the crucial community in the Founding generation who were responsible for the evolution of the constitutional instrument. We can now add Faber’s book to that latter list. His high opinion of Anti-Federalists is admirable, as is his treatment of this well-trodden intellectual territory.


Allen, Danielle. “We are in our Articles of Confederation Moment.” THE WASHINGTON POST. July 25, 2019.

Ford, Matt. “Rebuilding the Constitution: American Democracy is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.” THE NEW REPUBLIC. May 15, 2020.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Beau Breslin.